Dr. Sheila A. Smith is a renowned scholar, author, educator, and speaker in the world of Japanese politics and foreign policy. She serves as Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a New York and Washington, DC based membership organization that has provided American leaders and citizens with insights, research and guidance about international affairs for a hundred years.
The daughter of a naval intelligence officer, Smith first became fascinated with Japan while visiting Honshū as a teenager. She pursued East Asian Studies and Political Science at Columbia University in New York City, where she earned her BA and PhD. Dr. Smith assumed her current role at CFR in 2007. As a Senior Fellow, she has authored books about critical political changes in Japan shaped by Asia’s rapidly evolving geopolitics. Dr. Smith has also captained international research teams, briefed members of the United States Congress and the Executive branch, and created interactive resources for the public that are used by leaders and educators around the world.
Beyond her role at CFR, Dr. Smith teaches at Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania, and plays leadership roles in several U.S.-based nonprofits dedicated to the U.S.-Japan partnership. She chairs the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) and the U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON), organizations that are committed to strengthening the bond between the two countries.
Nichibei Connect recently sat down with Dr. Smith to discuss the significance of mentorship, scholarship, and exploration within the multi- faceted world of U.S.-Japan relations.
How did you first become interested in Japan?
When I was young, I heard about Japan from my father, who was an officer in the U.S. Navy and had done several tours in Japan. He first lived in Kamiseya as a young lieutenant in the 1950s, and told me many stories of his travels there. His admiration for the Japanese people only grew with each tour – one in Misawa and one in Okinawa – so his warm memories and personal connection to Japan infused my own interest in the country.
More than twenty years later, my first visit was with my family to Misawa Air Base on the northern Japanese island of Honshū. I remember being shocked when I landed at Haneda by the fact that everyone had black hair; everybody was different from me. When we got up north, there was snow everywhere and beautiful villages with thatched roofs, but most striking was the language I was hearing. Up until that point, I had been a resentful teenager feeling like I had been dragged away from my friends by my parents, but I became intrigued with this new place.
My family spent most weekends in the Japanese countryside, becoming immersed in the culture and environment. My parents and I didn’t speak Japanese, and there were some challenges—like when we ran out of gas at a local village—but I was lucky that I got to see Japan in a way that not many young Americans did. The Tohoku region was full of rural beauty with cherry blossoms in the spring, fantastic foliage in the fall, and lots of arts and crafts—I loved it.
What made you choose Japan as an academic and career focus?
My parents were in DC by the time I was in college, so I came to visit and by serendipity, a family friend told us that the Japanese embassy was looking for a secretary.
My first interview with Japanese diplomats was quite the experience. They hired me, and I’m still not really sure why! [Laughs.] My typing was slow but accurate, so perhaps that was the selling point. I spent almost two years as a junior secretary in the economics department, and had colleagues who were both local staff and diplomats. When I walked through the doors, it didn’t feel like the U.S. anymore—it felt like I was in Japan. This was during the trade disputes between the U.S. and Japan, so I got to follow many aspects of the ongoing tensions between the countries. I was party to the various Japanese visitors’ conversations with embassy staff, and I learned more about the Congressional hearings that seemed to always focus on Japan’s exports to the United States. These political tensions seemed so acrimonious, but they also revealed the huge cultural and social differences between our two societies. I became even more motivated to understand Japan, so I decided to return to study. I went off to Sophia University in Tokyo for an intensive course in Japanese history, culture, and language.
How important are language skills to people working in the world of U.S.-Japan relations? My training at Sophia—and from there to Columbia University in New York, where I went on to earn my PhD—was steeped in the world of traditional Asian studies. As someone with that background, I believe deeply in the value of gaining language skills and spending time in the country you’re studying. Experiencing another society from within is the starting point for gaining understanding. Observing how others view your own country is equally valuable.
That being said, the relationship between the U.S. and Japan today is nowhere near what it was when I was starting out. It’s possible to engage and contribute effectively to the U.S.-Japan partnership today without a traditional area studies background—you can work in the fields of energy and environmental issues, all kinds of business and finance sectors, new technologies such as advanced materials, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the list goes on. Many of these areas do not require learning Japanese. There’s such richness to the Japan-U.S. partnership today that you can find your niche with or without the language—but the language makes it so much more accessible. I would encourage anyone interested to give it a shot.
Can you talk about the role of mentors in your career?
I was very fortunate. My father helped me to imagine Japan’s transformation from his younger days there to the Japan I saw on my first visit. So many people helped me gain the knowledge and experience I have developed over my career, starting with the people I worked with in the Japanese embassy— government officials, their spouses and families — who I got to know very well. Without their encouragement, introductions, and recommendation letters, I never would have started my academic journey in Tokyo.
In Japan, I had the amazing experience of living for nine months with a host family. The family ran a very traditional Zen temple, and I would wake each morning to the sound of the obōsan singing morning sutras. My Japanese mother really took me under her wing. When I was obliterated with language classes at the end of a day, I’d go home, she’d make tea, and we’d watch afternoon television together without speaking, because she knew I was exhausted. The three daughters adopted me into their lives, and I experienced their various courtships (for one, that included an omiai) and marriages. I now know the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of that family. It became a lifelong friendship, and a place to always call home.
An interesting story—the father of that family had been a young cadet in the Imperial Navy during World War II. He was on the list to become a kamikaze pilot, but the war ended before he had to serve. We often spoke of Japanese experience during the war. When my father, a post-war American naval officer, came to visit me, I interpreted as the two of them talked about that war and how Japan and the United States used to be enemies, but were now allies. It was an astounding conversation, and my father often referenced how powerful it was to have been able to bridge their experiences in such a personal way. In a way it was the story of the U.S. and Japan relationship in a nutshell, one small example of how transformative the countries’ reconciliation and friendship has been.
When I was back in the U.S. after finishing my studies in Japan, I learned from the extraordinary faculty of Columbia University’s East Asian Institute. A supportive group of mentors trained me and other students in modern Japan and its society. Including my undergraduate advisors, James W. Morley (political science) and Carol Gluck (East Asian Studies). In graduate school, I worked also with incredible political scientists such as Gerry Curtis, Jack Snyder and Robert Jervis. So I was lucky to have intellectual leaders, a borrowed Japanese family, and so many others along the way who, like me today, were looking to help the next generation of Americans and Japanese to build the relationship through strong, deep personal connections.
What advice could you offer to readers looking for a mentor like you in the world of U.S.-Japan relations?
Look for people in your immediate surroundings who can help— family members, teachers, or professors, and then branch out. Reach out to speakers coming to your college, people you admire on social media or in organizations you encounter.
Take every opportunity to introduce yourself to those people and find out what they’re doing and how they got where they are. Introduce yourself as somebody interested in developing knowledge of Japan, or maybe even pursuing a career that involves Japan. The U.S.-Japan partnership is broad and deep at this point in our history, but these personal connections can help guide you on your next steps. Mostly, you should learn as much as you can about their journey and connection to Japan.
As one example, last year before the pandemic, I got an amazing email from a young man at the University of Virginia who read one of my books. As a student, it may be intimidating to reach out to someone who has written a book or given a speech—but as an author, hearing somebody say “thank you for writing that, I learned a lot” is wonderful. So if something about a book moves you, reach out to the author. The worst that happens is that you don’t get a response. But I guarantee the person whose book you read will be tickled that you took the time to make contact.
Finally, I’d recommend spending time on Nichibei Connect. We built this site to help to show what people in the world of U.S.-Japan relations have done in their careers, what internships and fellowships are available, and what ideas and opportunities are available to explore. In particular, I hope Nichibei Connect can give people from underserved communities—who may not have access to Japan specialists or the resources for study abroad close by—an idea of where to start.
How would you describe your work with the Council on Foreign Relations?
My work at the Council on Foreign Relations involves research, writing, and analyzing policy issues pertinent to Japan. The audiences for my work are American policy makers, political leaders, and the American public, but given that our outreach extends around the globe, I am finding that my work is read across the Asian region and in Europe also. My colleagues and I share our expertise as a way of bridging the expert and the policymaking communities, but increasingly important in today’s world is ensuring the citizens of the United States also understand the value of our partnership with Japan and others across the Indo-Pacific. Conveying insights from my research on Japan to a broader audience hopefully contributes to this understanding. For example, developing resources, such as our digital interactive on Japan’s constitutional debate, also helps educators and the media understand and communicate the complex politics of the issue in Japan.
How do you make all of that happen?
All kinds of ways. My research is largely focused on the cusp of domestic politics in Japan and Japan’s foreign policy choices, and I write books on those topics—my most recent one, Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, was published in 2019. The book I wrote before that in 2015 looked at Japanese politics and the rise of China. I also contribute to journals and online blogs. I am delighted also to be invited to speak on these topics at universities, government agencies including our military institutions, corporations, and to the general public.
Can you elaborate on the role you play in directly advising U.S. government officials? Our work at CFR is to inform on issues that shape U.S. foreign policy, and part of that mission is to be a resource for our policymakers, including our Congress. Background briefings related to ongoing policy issues or legislation can be helpful. For example, my research on how a rising China was affecting Japanese politics included work on the Senkaku Islands. I was often asked for background on this dispute by those in the executive branch working on security cooperation with Japan as well as members of Congress trying to understand the maritime issues in the East China Sea. Outside experts like me can contribute deep knowledge to help decisionmakers understand the context and dynamics of the issue they are grappling with which involves other societies.
How do you decide what subjects to focus on—and how do you tackle topics that can be hugely complex and nuanced?
Everyone at the Council comes to the table with expertise, but we have experts who have gained their experience through different careers. I’m an academic by background and training, but we also have senior fellows with background in the media, science, government, public health, and other professions. Their shared focus is in solving policy problems. And while CFR is focused on foreign policy, that’s no longer separate from domestic policy —the world is connected in so many ways, as we’ve certainly seen during the pandemic, that it can sometimes be difficult to define a policy problem as solely a foreign policy challenge. Domestic and foreign policymaking is now deeply intertwined.
I was originally brought on to help inform Americans on our partnership with Japan, to help U.S. leaders understand the dynamics within Japanese politics and society. I’d already done research on Japan’s domestic politics and foreign policy choices, and especially on Japanese security policymaking. I was in the midst of research on Japan’s relationship with China when I was hired by CFR. These were topics I would later write about, but like any scholars, we are all responsible for coming up with interesting ideas, pursuing grants, and writing up our research results.
I did several large projects at the beginning of my time at CFR that brought Japanese experts to the U.S. to meet with their American counterparts. Those meetings were great opportunities for everyone to sit at the same table and address complex problems in different ways. For example, Japan’s China scholars wanted a chance to discuss the findings of a U.S. Task Force on China.
Understanding how Japanese and U.S. experts interpret Chinese behavior in the world remains an important conversation for our alliance, and indeed for the entire Indo-Pacific region. My own research has focused on the domestic political changes that inform Japan’s response to a rising China. It was clear by the early 2000s that Japan’s relationship with China was fraying. New issues were challenging for the governments to address, and increasingly problems such as maritime boundary differences and food security needs were echoing this dissonance among the public. And this was prior to the clash in 2010 and again in 2012 over the Senkaku Islands. Far earlier than the U.S., Japan’s interests were being affected by China’s growing economic and military influence.
I spent time at Keio University in Tokyo on an Abe Fellowship while doing my research, and eventually wrote my book (Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China) in 2015. I used differing case studies to demonstrate the variety of actors and interests that were shaped by China, and the audience was largely academic and other experts on Asia. But as tensions in the East China Sea ratcheted up, my work became highly relevant to U.S. policymakers trying to understand the politics in Japan that informed its increasingly difficult effort to cope with China.
How did you get into teaching?
I began teaching in my formative years as a graduate student at Columbia. I never saw myself becoming a university professor, but I was surprised by how much I missed the interaction with students when I moved to work in a think tank. I’m fortunate that Georgetown University, and then this semester the University of Pennsylvania, asked if I could teach courses. It has been great fun to share my work on Japan’s politics and foreign policy with students.
For readers who want to follow in your footsteps, is a PhD a necessary step?
Whenever I’m asked for this sort of advice, I try to ask more about the person asking the question. My expertise was developed over my career, and I did not design my professional trajectory from the beginning! It evolved over time. My sense therefore is that it is important to understand what motivates you, and what sort of work appeals to you. From there, you should ask what qualifications would help you succeed in that space. Are you interested in in politics, global health issues, social welfare issues, etc.? Where is your heart (as well as your intellect)? Today you can develop that Japan piece of your own puzzle as you consider next steps. Look to how engaging with Japan may be a part of your other interests. Think too about where you might want to make a difference and/or where your voice can make a difference. As I look back, I often found myself in rooms where few like me had typically been. That includes being the first woman on an all male faculty or being an American researcher looking at anti-base activism or talking to various non-government stakeholders in Japan who were becoming influential in shaping China policy. You will make your own path in a time and place of the future. Remember that your career path is yours, and decades from now, you may be working in a profession that might not yet exist.
It’s important to remember that the PhD, like a medical or law degree, is a training degree for a particular profession—university-based teaching and research. You can go work on Capital Hill without a PhD. If you are a Japan Studies major, there are all kinds of things you can do to get involved in politics and policy, and maybe your Japanese expertise could be part of that. But there are so many other ways to build bridges to Japan no matter what profession you are in, whether you’re a member of civil society, a teacher, or a professional in another capacity. Your engagement with Japan may also be part of your life even if it is not the focus of your day-to-day work. So much of my life is spent working with others in support of the partnership in a volunteer or advisory capacity.
Do you have any final advice, especially for young people?
This current generation, my son’s generation, will have career options that weren’t even imaginable when I was young. You have to look at the world we live in and all the opportunities it offers. The Japanese-American partnership needs people to thrive, however. Without personal ties and relationships between the citizens of the United States and Japan, our geopolitical ties will be hollow. Learn as much as you can about Japan, visit—or even better, live— there, build friendships and professional ties and help your Japanese friends and colleagues understand the United States. This is a remarkable partnership, one that has developed over hundreds of years and gone through tremendous difficulties. But it is remarkable for that fact; the resilience of our relationship depends on your generation now to sustain. Follow what you love, and Japan will always beckon you in new and surprising ways.
Deepen your knowledge of Japan and international relations by reading these works from Dr. Sheila A. Smith: